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Among nursing home outbreaks of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) with ≥3 breakthrough infections when the predominant severe acute respiratory coronavirus virus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) variant circulating was the SARS-CoV-2 δ (delta) variant, fully vaccinated residents were 28% less likely to be infected than were unvaccinated residents. Once infected, they had approximately half the risk for all-cause hospitalization and all-cause death compared with unvaccinated infected residents.
In the last chapter I considered, via a detailed examination of the contemporary practice known as Scriptural Reasoning, how Humboldt’s philosophy of language (especially his concepts of “dialogue” and “translation”) can contribute to communication between faith-based traditions. In this chapter I will consider the equally important question of how it can contribute to communication between such traditions and secular modes of thought in the contemporary world. My purpose is not to argue that Humboldt’s idea of translation as dialogue can resolve any of the actual problems of communication between secular and religious worldviews in the modern world. It is to propose that the Humboldtian framework might enable us to understand some of those problems better than some of the most influential alternative paradigms, especially that offered by Jürgen Habermas, who has devoted much of his recent work to the problem of dialogue with communities of faith in the contemporary secular world.
Language is central to Humboldt’s thought because of the conflict at the heart of the idea of enlightenment between the personal and the social expression of reason. Language both expresses that conflict and, by the same token, can partially and yet progressively overcome it. As we have seen, the conflict was especially acute at the time Kant, Mendelssohn, and Humboldt were writing. At that time, European society was neither a democracy nor liberal. The right of reason to speak truth to power which Kant so confidently affirms was anything but politically or legally guaranteed. His hope that the progressive extension of intellectual freedom would eventually lead to the realization of political rights was not fulfilled in his own time, let alone its aftermath. Therefore the separation of the private and the public uses of reason, which for Kant guaranteed the coexistence of subjective intellectual freedom with obedience to an objective but rationally based political order, raised and continues to raise multiple questions. In Kant’s time and since, it has been persistently questioned in that medium which Moses Mendelssohn acutely identified as the link between the two spheres: the human world of language. Whether the “Western” or “European” world can be described as a “liberal democracy,” whether it is a vehicle of “enlightenment” and what “enlightenment” might mean in and for the two-thirds of the world outside the “West” remain open questions in our own time.
Humboldt’s text known as the “Kawi Essay” forms the introduction to a much longer work on the Kawi language of the island of Java (“Über die Kawi Sprache auf der Insel von Java”). Both were prepared between 1829 and 1835 and published posthumously by his brother Alexander von Humboldt in 1836. The “Kawi Essay” is a case study in what Humboldt calls “Die Betrachtung des Zusammenhangs der Sprachverschiedenheit und Völkervertheilung mit der Erzeugung der menschlichen Geisteskraft … insofern sich diese beiden Erscheinungen gegenseitig aufzuhellen vermögen” (GS, 7, 1:15; [the] consideration of the connection between linguistic diversity and the distribution of peoples with the growth of human mental power … so far as these two phenomena can throw mutual light on each other; KE, 22). Humboldt’s study concerns the influence of Sanskrit on the languages of the Malayan peninsula, especially Kawi. Humboldt considers such questions as the process by which nouns and pronouns of Indian Sanskrit origin come to be found in Kawi, the influence of Sanskrit on sound shifts in the Kawi language, and the absence in both Sanskrit and Kawi of the subjunctive mood. Such investigations form part of a broader inquiry into the nature of language evolution and language change. However, Humboldt clearly distinguishes between two questions: (1) whether the civilization of the Malayan archipelago is chiefly of Indian origin and (2) whether Sanskrit and the languages of the Malayan archipelago have been connected from a time prior to all literature and in a way which can be demonstrated by common elements in both contemporary languages. Humboldt writes in his introduction (GS, 7, 1:10; KE, 18) that there is no evidence that the civilization (“Civilisation”) of the Malayan archipelago is of Indian or Sanskrit origin but (as his study will go on to show) much evidence to support the thesis of a continuous and enduring influence of Sanskrit on the languages of Malaya and Java, especially Kawi.
This distinction is highly significant, because although Humboldt is concerned with the ways in which the diversity and interaction of languages influences the intellectual development of humankind, his study is not in the first place concerned with the way one “civilization” or “culture” may or may not affect another.
What is most central to Humboldt’s argument about the diversity of languages is not the relativity of thought to language and therefore the contingent plurality of linguistic and intellectual perspectives, but the universal human need for diversity and therefore for communication which that plurality implies.
In his “Introduction to the Whole Study of Language,” Humboldt writes as follows: “Vermutlich ist der eigentliche Grund der Vielheit der Sprachen das innere Bedürfnis des menschlichen Geistes, eine Mannigfaltigkeit intellectueller Formen hervorzubringen, welche Schranke auf uns gleich unbekannte Weise, als die Mannigfaltigkeit der belebten Naturbildungen, findet” (GS, 7, 2:622; The real reason for the multiplicity of languages is probably the inner need of the human mind to bring forth a multiplicity of intellectual forms. The limit to that diversity is as incomprehensible to us as the limit to the formation of organisms in the natural world). Humboldt’s analogy between languages and the living forms of the natural world does not therefore mean that he considers the development or interaction of languages to be an “organic” process in any teleological sense, especially not as a sign of historical or cultural progress. For Humboldt, neither the diversity of languages nor the ways in which they change can be conceived as having any “purpose” external to the living reality of language itself. There is no a priori reason why a particular finite number of languages exist, nor why they should develop in a particular way. The world of language is what Karl Popper, in his account of the Darwinian paradigm of evolution, calls “a world of propensities,” where living organisms may have “propensities” to develop in certain ways but in which we can never predict the outcome of their contingent interaction. Although Humboldt’s linguistic writings predate Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (1859) by at least thirty years, his understanding of the “organic” development of language has more in common with Darwin than Kant. For Humboldt, languages do not develop toward or because of a teleological end (“diese Ansicht ist gänzlich von der der Zwecke verschieden”) but as living organisms interacting with each other:
Ihre Verschiedenheit lässt sich als das Streben betrachten, mit welchem die in den Menschen allgemein gelegte Kraft der Rede, begünstigt oder gehemmt durch die den Völkern beiwohnende Geisteskraft, mehr oder weniger glücklich hervorbricht …
The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being. Every response binds up the Thou in the world of It. That is the melancholy of man, and his greatness. For that is how knowledge comes about, a work is achieved, and image and symbol made, in the midst of living beings.
The difference between languages is not between sounds and signs, but between ways of looking at the world in themselves. This is the ground and the ultimate purpose of all our investigation of language. The totality of what can be known, as our field of intellectual enquiry, lies between all languages, and independent of any particular language, in the middle. We can only approach this purely objective domain by means of our faculty of knowledge and imagination; that is to say, subjectively.
—Wilhelm von Humboldt
In this book I aim to do two things: first, to provide a modern introduction to the linguistic and cultural thought of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), a key figure of the German enlightenment and one of the founders of modern linguistics; and second, to show the relevance of Humboldt’s thought to dialogue between cultures and especially between faiths. I want to show that Humboldt’s philosophy of language, especially his idea of “translation,” is relevant to much more than “language.” It can offer us a way beyond one of the most intractable problems and sterile conflicts of our contemporary world: the perceived incompatibility between the affirmation of cultural and religious identities and the equally insistent demand for a renewal of the universal project of enlightenment.
Whether or not it is ultimately coherent, this intellectual conflict has been brought to a head by the continuing perception in the West that what Samuel Huntington (1996) called The Clash of Civilizations is the key issue in global politics.3 For Huntington, the real global divide is no longer between competing political ideologies but between “civilizations,” usually larger than nation states, with religious and cultural traditions that differ radically from each other. Huntington argued that such formations—which he might equally well have called “cultures”4— have become more and not less important with the increasing diffusion of technological civilization across the globe.
In the last chapter I explored how, in the work of three distinguished modern exponents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the interpretation of one monotheistic tradition can take place in the context of “dialogue” and “translation” between one or more different ones. At the end of the chapter we saw, in Forster’s imaginative vision, how the attempt at dialogue and translation between faiths can be both real and unreal—the touchstone of truth, or the index of inauthenticity—in a real historical environment: in this case the racially, culturally, and spiritually divided world of British India.
Forster shows us, among many other things, how dialogue and translation might happen, or fail to happen, in the interstices of a complex human world in which many forces other than the intention to make them happen are at play. That is because Forster is writing a work of realist imaginative fiction, not philosophical hermeneutics or a manifesto for a particular kind of cultural or intellectual practice. As Alasdair Macintyre shows, the narration of an imagined human life is analogous to the course of a real one because both are at once contingent and yet partially teleological. To be an embodied person is to be the same person throughout one’s life and yet constantly to be exposed to unpredictable influence and circumstance and so constantly and unpredictably to change. If the realist novelist’s narration is to be credible, he or she must do justice to this dual characteristic in their narrative. As Ben Quash shows, the movement known as Scriptural Reasoning must also reflect and embody this duality if it is to be a living dialogue and not just a second-hand report of one. But Scriptural Reasoning (even if it resists institutionalization and abjures any preconceived end) is also an activity that is intentionally initiated and directed. In this chapter I will examine in detail the practice of Scriptural Reasoning (hereafter referred to as SR) and argue that it is this apparent paradox that makes SR into a powerful medium of communication between faiths and links it to a Humboldtian understanding of dialogue and translation.
In writing this book I have incurred and realized many debts, several of which go back a long time before I began writing it. Professor Nicholas Boyle of Magdalene College, Cambridge sowed the seeds of an interest in the presence of truth in language which goes back to my student days. My lifelong friend Paul Smith and his work with the British Council exemplify the communication between persons, preceding and yet enabling communication between cultures, which is the major concern of Humboldt’s work and the central theme of this book. My friendship with Andrew Fineron has likewise informed its argument, especially through a long walk in the Englischer Garten in Munich in which he pointed out to me the difference between conceptual and experiential understanding of the difference between cultures and religions. Dr. David Fowler, a great social historian, has consistently taught me the relevance of history as it is actually lived. Professor Mary Orr of the University of St Andrews and Dr. Ian Cooper of the University of Kent kindled my interest in Humboldt and the sacramental dimension of language, which has been greatly extended by my participation in a Scriptural Reasoning group of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Cambridge. My work at Birkbeck College, London— the most multicultural and multifaith environment I have ever experienced— nourished the real roots of what over the last few years has become a specifically academic concern. I am especially indebted to my friendship there with Dr. Alexander Weber and Dr Nicolette David over the past twenty-five years.
I am grateful to the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst for providing the opportunity for a very stimulating visit in 2018 to the Marc Bloch Zentrum of the Humboldt Universität, Berlin, where I was made welcome by Professor Markus Messling and was also able to consult Professor Jürgen Trabant, the leading Humboldt scholar in the German-speaking world. Professor Marko Pajević of the University of Tartu in Estonia was a most attentive and helpful reader of my manuscript, and Jim Walker, Editorial Director at Boydell and Brewer, an exemplary and encouraging editor.
In the second part of this chapter, I will argue that Humboldt’s thought is directly relevant to the situation of the modern university and supports some proposals for its reconfiguration. First, however, I would like to return to the question addressed at the beginning of this book, which also focuses on the contemporary relevance of Humboldt’s thought. Why was the problem of language so central to the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt in the context of the European enlightenment and why does his account of language continue to make his thought relevant now?
The answer was suggested by a comparison of two responses to the theme set by the Prussian academy in 1784: Was ist Aufklärung? or What is Enlightenment? Immanuel Kant resoundingly announced the motto of enlightenment as “Habe Mut, Dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!” (Have the courage to use your own understanding!) and its definition as “der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit” (humanity leaving behind its own self-incurred immaturity). As we saw in chapter 1, Kant in this essay draws attention to a central problem that the realization of this imperative entails: the conflict, in all intellectual and political life, between what he calls the “private” (“privat”) and the “public” (“öffentlich”) uses of reason. As I have already explained in detail in chapter 1, Kant’s definition of these terms is highly specific. He defines the “private” (“privat”) use of reason as that appropriate to someone acting in a public role—for example, a policeman, judge, or priest—who should use their reason only “in private”: that is to say, without allowing it to affect the execution of their official duties. By contrast, he defines the “public” (“öffentlich”) use of reason as that appropriate to the same person thinking, reading, or writing in the universal public world of learning (“die Leserwelt”). Even beyond being potentially confusing because his usage of the two terms is not the same as their general use today, Kant’s radical distinction raises as many questions as it solves. The most important is whether the distinction is ultimately coherent. Where is the line between the public and the private use of reason ultimately to be drawn, and can it in any given society be drawn with absolute clarity at all?
In chapter 2 we saw how Humboldt does not understand the task of linguistic translation as being to conceal or remove what is “Other” in the original language (“Das Fremde”), but rather to overcome its foreign quality or appearance (“Die Fremdheit”). The real task of translation is to enable us to understand the true meaning of the difference between languages. Humboldt’s insight about the task of translation between languages is directly relevant to his understanding of translation between cultures: that is to say, to intercultural understanding. In this chapter I will explore Humboldt’s engagement with the sacred texts of ancient India and how it differs from the practice of “Orientalism” in Germany at the time he was writing.
Humboldt’s insight anticipates a formulation of the German orientalist scholar Andrea Polaschegg, who has argued that the key categories of intercultural study should not be what is our own and what is other than ourselves—“das Eigene” and “das Andere”—but rather the dialogue between what we initially experience as familiar (“das Vertraute”) and what is initially foreign to us (“das Fremde”). As Polaschegg shows, an exaggerated concern with deconstructing false ideas of the Oriental Other—which may or may not be the product of language—might prevent us from communicating with and so understanding the actual other person whom we encounter. Understanding people who are other than ourselves necessarily involves making them “strange” to ourselves—that is, becoming conscious of the false linguistic and cultural categories we may project on to them—precisely in order that we might recognize who they are in themselves. But this “making strange” always involves a dialogic relationship that will ultimately change ourselves as much as our understanding of others. To recognize what is truly strange (“das Fremde”) about peoples as much as languages is the first step to making them known and trusted. By the same token, Humboldt’s idea of cultural as well as linguistic translation necessarily requires the “making strange” (“Verfremdung”) of our own culture and language: a creative act of self-alienation which for Polaschegg is the unavoidable precondition for understanding the cultural and linguistic Other, whether she be “Oriental” or otherwise.
Why is language the most important element in Humboldt’s thought? The key lies in Humboldt’s response to a central paradox in the idea of enlightenment, of which the best-known formulation is Kant’s famous essay What is Enlightenment?
In that essay, written in response to a theme set by the Prussian academy in 1784, Kant resoundingly defines enlightenment as “humanity leaving behind its own self-incurred immaturity” (der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit) and its motto as “Have the courage to use your own understanding!” (Habe Mut, Dich Deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!). For Kant, this is an imperative to be liberated from the tutelage of intellectual guardians who tell us how to think, priests who tell us what to believe, doctors who tell us what to eat, and soldiers who tell us only to obey. The freedom he enjoins us to realize is logically negative: it is freedom from the constraint of authority external to ourselves, not the freedom to attain any specific object that Kant wants to define. Yet its consequences are far-reaching and of great political and social import. First, it is worth noticing that Kant’s idea of maturity (“Mündigkeit”) has a double meaning. As the adjective “self-incurred” (selbstverschuldet) suggests, it clearly means the intellectual or psychological immaturity that is our own fault, because we lack the courage to emancipate ourselves from it. However, it also means the legally defined and enforced condition of majority and its opposite (“Unmündigkeit”), the status of a minor, who has tutors or guardians (“Vormünder”; ibid., 453) set over him or her. The two meanings are linked by Kant’s assertion that many people, having reached the age of adulthood, behave as if they were still minors because they voluntarily accept the tutelage imposed on them.
In the course of Kant’s essay, it becomes clear that this dual emphasis has social and political as well as intellectual consequences. If Kant’s argument was only about the idea of enlightenment, then our failure to realize that idea could only be a consequence of a lack of knowledge or courage. Once we had understood the imperative to use our own understanding, it would simply be up to us—Kant’s original or modern readers—to carry it out in reality: the actual social and political world.
[Hölderlin] sagt von der gültigen Vergangenheit des Menschen: “Seit ein Gespräch wir sind und hören von einander,” Hölderlin sagt nicht, wir führten ein Gespräch: selber sind wirs. Wir sind ein Gespräch.
[Hölderlin] says of the meaningful past of humanity: “Since we are a dialogue and hear from each other.” Hölderlin does not say that we once had a dialogue: we are it ourselves. We are dialogue.
In the last two chapters I explored the application of Humboldt’s idea of translation to the languages and cultures of Asia, especially the Kawi language of Java and the religious texts of ancient India. In the next two chapters I will explore the relevance of that idea to the second central theme of this book: communication between different faith traditions in the contemporary world. In this chapter I will examine some of the difficulties as well as the promises of applying Humboldt’s idea of translation to communication between the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. My argument will be exemplified by an examination of the relationship between faith commitment and dialogue between religious traditions in the work of three modern representatives of those traditions. In the next chapter I will look in detail at one contemporary attempt at interfaith communication—the practice known as Scriptural Reasoning—to which, I will suggest, Humboldt’s understanding of translation as dialogue is especially relevant.
Translation and Faith: Concepts and Problems
The point of this chapter is not to argue that any of the figures it will consider are conscious or unconscious heirs to Humboldt’s legacy, nor to suggest that Humboldt’s idea of translation should explicitly be invoked in the practice of interfaith dialogue. It is to suggest that the Humboldtian framework can illuminate what happens in interfaith communication at its best and clear away some of the misunderstandings that often prevent such communication from succeeding; and that it has some decisive advantages over some influential alternative ways of understanding translation between faith traditions and between such traditions and the secular public sphere. Some of the theories of translation that I will consider are relatively constrained by the tradition of which they are a part; others are more open to alternative perspectives.